Back in 1955, if your grandfather could manipulate the speed force and time travel to 2017, he’d be awe-struck at 21st-century technology. A device that holds all the information in the world and it fits in your pocket! A camera that does not need film! A car that talks to you!
As you two settled in at a bar to watch a professional football game, he’d scarcely recognize what offensive coordinators have done with tight ends. In grandpa’s day, tight ends were too ugly to play receiver, and not quite big enough to play tackle. They could catch, block and level a linebacker. It was a brutal position, played only by men with steely eyes, jaws of iron and tungsten spines.
The tight end position changed on April 19, 1997, when the Kansas City Chiefs traded draft spots with the Houston Oilers and selected Tony Gonzalez from the University of California, Berkeley. Gonzalez ushered in a new era of the tight end and offense: coordinators could flank their Y-receiver out wide against a 5’10, 190-pound defensive back – an automatic mismatch – and run nearly any route in the book with success. Or, a coordinator could line the Y up in the slot and run him on a seam route. With a basketball background, the quarterback could place the ball anywhere above the tight end’s head, knowing his receiver was going to out jump the safety.
So, who did the San Francisco 49ers draft this year in the 5th round? Why George Kittle, tight end from the University of Iowa! He’s 6’4, 247 pounds, and was a power forward on his high school basketball team.
Finding full game film of Kittle was tough, so I had to watch a lot of short highlights of his college career. Iowa asked a lot of Kittle: run block, second level and downfield blocks and outlet receiver for CJ Beathard. However, don’t let the vanilla description fool you. Kittle is a tight end who can block for seven plays in a row – with near flawlessness –and on the eighth play, he’ll down block for a moment and release over the top of a very confused defensive end. Or, he’ll delay for a second or two, and end up in the flat.
Iowa would flank Kittle out from time to time, and he ran a gorgeous out-and-up against Rutgers. Kittle wasn’t targeted much in college, but it’s unfair to count that against him.
How Does He Fit in Shanahan’s Offense?
The 49ers have seven tight ends on their roster, including Kittle, Cole Hikutini and long snapper Kyle Nelson. Assuming Nelson retains his spot as a long snapper, the final 53 man roster will probably have three tight ends.
If Vance McDonald was watching the draft last weekend, I have no doubt he shifted on his couch a bit when the 49ers drafted Kittle. Even if you’re only a casual 49ers fan, you’ve probably rolled your eyes at how often McDonald drops passes.
Kittle may come in and not only out catch McDonald in practice, but be a far greater run blocker in Shanahan’s new offense.
Additionally, I’d love to see what Kittle can do against Seattle’s infamous single-high safety look. For too many years, the 49ers offense hasn’t exploited the weaknesses in a Cover 3 defense. Kittle can attack the weak flat all day, or delay a moment and run a Y-hook right in front of the dropping free safety.
With Kittle in the offense, don’t be surprised to see Shanahan call a version of the 2 Jet Flanker Drive. In this play, the Z-receiver runs a 5-yard route across the field in front of the linebackers, while the Y runs a 10-12 yard dig route. It’s a perfect play for Kittle, especially after lulling the defense to sleep with his run blocking play after play.
The 49ers made a statement drafting Kittle: We’re ending the era of celebrating and defending mediocre talent. Kittle can give McDonald the competition he’s sorely lacked, which may make McDonald a better player. Regardless, Kittle is a solid 5th round pick who can certainly make an impact running routes this fall.